What makes a place a home? I grew up on a small farm in Sunnyside, Washington, where my dad raised sheep and my mom took care of the house and yard. For almost twenty-two years I called this place home. But home wasn’t the location, Sunnyside. It was where my parents were. I moved in and out until I got married at twenty-five, but their house was still home. Even after being married twenty years, whenever I visited my parents, I would say I was going "home."
I did a Google search for “what makes a home.” The following are my favorites:
A home is any place where you are comfortable and feel as if you can be yourself.
A home is not a place; it’s a feeling.
A house is just a place with a roof, but a home is a place where you live, laugh, and feel comfort.
I lived in Baker City, Oregon, for twenty years. It’s where my husband and I moved in 1994 after getting married. We bought our first house a year later. It was old, built in 1901; small, barely 750 square feet; and needed some work. It wasn’t bank financeable because it didn’t have a foundation, so the previous owner had to hold the contract. We slowly turned it into a home. We painted walls and planted a lawn. Eventually, we put a foundation under the house and a new roof up top. We got to know our neighbors and watched their kids become adults. One of those ‘kids’ tucks a school photo of her own daughter in the Christmas card she sends us. We moved a few times, but the first house we owned felt more like home than any of the others. We put a lot of hard work into it and that made us appreciate it more.
In 2006 we took a year off and traveled around the United States and Canada on our motorcycles. We were invited into many homes. People we had met on the Internet welcomed us into their houses to stay a night, or two. We became good friends with several, and lost touch with others. The places that felt most like home were the ones where we weren’t afraid to walk on the floor with our shoes on. A coat might be casually tossed over the back of a chair, or an open book lay on a couch, indicating that someone had sat there a minute or two prior. It was the feeling that we were welcome and part of the family.
We ended up staying a week in Long Island because of heavy rain. The storms were so bad our hosts, who worked in New York City, couldn’t go to work. We felt like we had invaded their home with no way to escape. We learned more about them than most of the other people we stayed with. We watched their well-trained dogs sit on a towel when they came in the door to wait patiently for their humans to wipe the mud off their feet. We learned that when you order pizza in Long Island, you ask for a pie. It was also the first time we saw a slice of pizza folded in half to be eaten. It was a relief to all of us when we were finally able to ride away.
After traveling for almost a year, my husband couldn’t wait to settle down and make a new home. He needed a roof over his head and a place to park his bike. I felt at home on the road. I enjoyed seeing new locations and meeting new people. He did as well, but he needed a house with four walls, a roof, and a garage. I was content wherever we were. I suppose that feeling came from the family road trips I took with my parents every summer as a child. My soul was comfortable wherever my family was.
In 2011, my husband and I bought an A-frame cabin in the woods a few miles outside of Baker City. It was set at the edge of the forest. Our little plot of land was the first to see the rising sun and the last to turn dark at the end of the day. When we bought the cabin, we intended it as our retirement house. Anytime I went somewhere, returning to Baker City had always felt like coming home. There’s a spot on the freeway that allows a wide sweeping view of the valley. The mountains can be seen in the background, surrounding the farmland below. The mountain tops almost always have a layer of snow that gleams brightly under the afternoon sun. I remember many times reaching that spot on the freeway and saying, “I’m home.”
A forest fire came through in August of 2015 and ravaged the landscape. We lost all our outbuildings, fences, and most of our trees. In January of that same year, my mom was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. When her health declined, I left my job to stay with her. She passed away that December. We temporarily moved into her house to get it cleaned up and prepared to sell. Although I had been absent for twenty-two years, I felt comfortable there. It wasn’t quite the same because both of my parents were gone, but it still felt like home. I felt more like myself there than anywhere else.
My siblings and I had many discussions while we tried to decide what to do with the farm. My brother and I talked about keeping it, but in the end we concluded that it wouldn’t be the same. One of the highlights of being there was sitting on the back deck, Dad reminiscing about his childhood in Arkansas and Mom trying to decide what to plant in the garden that year. “Without them here,” my brother quietly stated, “it won’t be the same.”
After settling her estate, we traveled again for several months, returning to our cabin in late fall, 2016. We spent the next year trying to recover from the fire. We planted grass seed and cut down dead trees. Our place started looking green and pretty again, but the hills surrounding our property were poorly managed and the forest service wouldn’t allow any clean up. The burnt trees turned into hazards with several falling any time the wind blew. The ground had been sterilized by the fire, so there wasn’t any green underbrush. Without a place to burrow, pack rats and other wild animals started coming closer and harassing or killing our household pets.
My husband started coming home from work later and later. One day he finally declared, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t stand to see this place. I have the before picture in my head and I keep comparing it to what we have now.” We decided to sell. It was depressing to drive down the road and see all the burnt trees and scorched ground. It was no longer home.
We bought a house in town and tried to make it home. We cleaned, painted, and planted. After three years, it still didn’t feel like home. Something was missing. We had both quit laughing and were simply existing.
“Let’s sell this house and go to Arkansas. You liked it there and my uncle said he could get you a job at the tractor dealership.” I tried to get my husband to leave, but he was comfortable where he was.
“I don’t want to move too far away from Mom and my retirement plan is too good here.” He always had an excuse for not leaving.
Lots of discussions, tears, and heartbreak followed. I decided to take a job elsewhere. After renting for nearly a year I bought my own little house. I’ve painted, fixed a lot of electrical issues, and repaired lots of plumbing. Eventually, I decided it still wasn’t home. I’m in the process of moving back in with my husband, and I’m okay with that. Soon I’ll be home again.
Home isn’t where you’re from, it’s where you find light when all grows dark – Pierce Brown
BIO: Penny Camp is a lifetime member of WVU where she earned her Nonfiction MFA Certificate in September, 2021. She has taken numerous writing classes over the years with a particular interest in creative nonfiction. She has been published in Village Square Literary, Women Riders Now, and Celebrating Our Mothers: An Anthology.